Photo by Lyra
“Americans call it ‘nesting doll’ but it really is matryoshka.” My mother’s heavy Russian accent tinged the words she spoke with a certain harshness, even if she meant for them to carry a gentle tone. “See, there’s one doll inside the other. It’s like mother to daughter in a growing family. What I just told you, you will tell the class. Ok?” Each vibrantly painted folk maiden shell encased her descendants as the wooden layers were reassembled back together and placed into my clumsy 7-year-old hands. I could tell she was quite happy with the short and sweet presentation she designed for my show and tell. She had rigorously made me repeat my speech until every enunciation was just right, my hair was braided with an extra note of intricacy, and the doll was carefully wrapped in old newspaper before being gently placed into my backpack. Joy radiated from her presence because I would finally begin to understand the culture she unfortunately had to leave behind.
Regretfully, I never presented the doll.
As Annabeth played on her flute and Michael bragged on and on about his little league medal, my mother’s matryoshka became shameful. It was so out of place, so unamerican. I was already teased with awful pronunciations of my Slavic name, jokes about how disgusting the food I brought from home looked, and mocking imitations of the language I spoke with my family. I longed to be accepted by everyone else and be overlooked as just another American girl. In my eyes, which had become hyper-aware of any possible ridiculing, the doll would only be another reason for my classmates to reject me. After an impulsive decision, I haphazardly forced my physical embarrassment into my cluttered bag, praying that no one saw even a sliver of the finely detailed floral patterns that stained its wood.
I’ve forgotten what I presented as a replacement for the doll my mother meticulously planned for. Perhaps it was a wrinkled art project from the other day or something else just as unmemorable. Though, the realization of opening my backpack to be horrified by the chipped pieces of the painted woman and dusts of paint covering the bottom of my backpack continues to haunt my heavy heart. My naive negligence had allowed the massive weight of my school books to crush the doll. Rather than feeling guilty for my mother’s broken trust, all I could fear was her outlash if she had found out the truth. So, my mother’s beloved matryoshka remained hidden atop of my closet shelf underneath stacks of winter blankets for years.
The few times my mother asked about the matryoshka, it would be when she braided my hair into “kosichki” before school. I always answered a little too hastily with “I lost it” then quickly redirected the conversation to how everyone enjoyed my presentation so much that maybe another kid took it when I wasn’t looking (for some reason, I was convinced losing the doll was more forgivable than completely crushing it). Simple 7-year-old me had the impression that she truly believed my blatant lie, but I’ve grown to realize that she was too exhausted from life’s hardships to interrogate me.
I absolutely despised the 20 or so minutes she spent on my hair each morning because both of us knew my hair would eventually be loose and unruly when she would pick me up from the after-school program I was enrolled in. No matter how much she would lecture me of the harmony and heritage of the braids mothers would weave for their daughters, the long free-flowing hair of my traditionally pretty classmates would eventually tempt me into undoing my mother’s work.
“What happened to your hair?” She would sullenly ask on the car ride home.
“The kosichki just got loose, and I took them out,” was always the reply as my thin breakage-prone hair would be knotted into tangles and raised in a crown of static frizz. I would pretend that I didn’t see the deep disappointment and hurt reflected in the rearview mirror so I could act as careless as I always did in front of her. The cycle continued. In the morning she would braid my hair again with hopes I would come home feeling pretty with two neat braids swinging down my back.
I never did.
I don’t remember much of my grandfather or my early childhood years I spent with him in Kazakhstan. Whenever I see vintage photos of him with his dark unruly curls and tanned skin, he seems almost like a stranger, just like the rest of my extended family overseas. Though there was one thing that always stayed, and it was the words he taught me in Russian. “Volk”, meaning wolf, was my first word and the name of his dog I loved so much. “Chai”, meaning tea, was what he drank in the afternoon and I would imitate him with my juice. Then there was my grandfather’s nickname “One” or in Russian “Odin”, because he was, at the time, the number one person in my life.
When I finally left my “Odin” and came to the U.S., I quickly realized that not everyone understood the words he taught me. I so desperately tried to talk and make friends, yet there was always that barrier of insecurity from my awkward wording and harsh pronunciation. I became shy and secluded, far from the ecstatic young girl in pictures taken in Kazakhstan who was rambunctious and excited to enjoy life.
I read a lot, because frankly there wasn’t much else for me to do with the other kids who viewed me as an outsider. With book series such as Nancy Drew and Junie B. Jones, I began to understand how American girls acted and the English words they used when they talked. The more I read, the more I subliminally imitated them, and the more accepted I felt. Russian became juvenile in my “enlightened” point of view. The language soon faded into a remnant of a painful past I wished to forget. My parents still struggled with English, and I found their wrong pronunciations and uses of grammar hilarious. I even teased them just like my previous classmates mocked me, because I subconsciously suspected I was superior in intelligence. My accent had faded and I no longer stood out as a foreigner. Why couldn’t they do the same?
“Would you like to say anything to him?” My mother had given me the phone with my grandfather on the line. He was unused to phone calls, but my relatives convinced him to call us for closure since he had become seriously ill. All that remained of Russian after a decade of actively trying to lose it was a simple “Hello” and “I love you” and I could hardly understand his loving response to my superficial words except for a few broken phrases.
He died several days later. It was the first time I’ve seen my mother cry.
Although I felt that I should have cried along with her, my eyes remained painfully dry. I’ll never know what his final goodbye to me was. Days and days went by as I tried to unravel its meaning with the few words I could understand. Somehow, the conclusion of my scrambling was the remembrance of the matryoshka that lay shamefully hidden in my closet under dusty winter blankets. My grandfather didn’t know of the doll, but in grief, I had led myself to believe that the matryoshka was a physical manifestation of my betrayal to him.
Maybe he would want me to fix it somehow. I thought. Maybe it will bring him some peace. I poured my soul into restoring the doll as it was a prayer of forgiveness to not only him but to my ancestors I had forgotten as well. Acrylic paint stained my nails. Splinters pinched my roughened skin. Wood glue ruined my delicate brushes as I finally pieced together the doll after so many years. Of course, it was far from its original artisan beauty. Colors didn’t match properly. Small cracks remained from pieces so minuscule they degraded into dust. The intricate floral patterns lost their detail. The maiden’s face was distorted from fine lines that were no longer perfectly aligned.
But when I saw that she was finally whole again and was sitting atop my nightstand with pride, I finally felt allowed to cry.